A history of violence 

Can Missoula public schools truly be prepared for a school shooting?

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The Columbine massacre resulted in more casualties than any school shooting in United States history to that point. The incident incited national debates about gun control, bullying in schools, violent video games and the dangers of young people having unfettered access to the Internet (Harris and Klebold blogged on America Online about making bombs and threatening teachers prior to the attack). The incident again turned the attention of the federal government to the threat of school shootings. In June 1999, the Secret Service launched the Safe School Initiative, which analyzed the actions of 41 perpetrators of "targeted school violence." The findings were opaque. Among the conclusions were that "incidents of targeted school violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts," and that "there is no accurate or useful 'profile' of students who engaged in targeted school violence." The Secret Service did report, however, that all of the perpetrators were male.

In fall 1986, Kristofor Hans was obsessed with the novel Rage by Stephen King. He carried the book around the halls of Fergus High and read it during class. When he stayed home sick from school, he asked that his sister get it from his locker and bring it home to him. It would require a leap of suspect deduction to say he killed Henrietta Smith, the substitute teacher assigned to his seventh period French II class, because of the book, though Kris would later admit the story played a role in his planning.

Rage is told from the perspective of Charlie Decker, a high school senior consumed with his own estrangement from the people around him. Through his eyes, the reader sees a world full of dilettantes and power mongers, and a father who could not be bothered to understand his son.

When Decker is expelled from school, he leaves the principal's office, lights his locker on fire and fatally shoots his algebra teacher, Mrs. Underwood, in front of the class. He then holds the class hostage for an hours-long standoff with police. In the end, he releases his classmates and is shot three times by the first officer to enter the room. He survives, though, and is sentenced, by reason of insanity, to a term at the state hospital.

Besides Kristofor Hans, at least four other students were known to have read Rage before bringing a gun to school. The incidents prompted King, in 1997, to request the publisher cancel future pressings of the book. "Now out of print, and a good thing," King said of the story.

click to enlarge At least five students are known to have read Rage, a novel written by Stephen King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, before bringing a gun to school. It is now out of print.
  • At least five students are known to have read Rage, a novel written by Stephen King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, before bringing a gun to school. It is now out of print.

What makes Rage more than a horror story of fetishized violence—what likely made it the subject of fantasy for at least five troubled kids—is not the acts of senseless violence, but rather what happens in the classroom after Decker pushes aside Mrs. Underwood's body so he can sit in her chair. Decker's captive classmates begin to sympathize with him, to talk to him and listen to him in ways he'd never experienced. As police rally outside the classroom window, with sirens and megaphones blaring, Decker and his classmates bond, irreverent to the trauma and to the authorities surrounding them. Eventually, Ted Jones, the most popular dude in the school who remained uninspired by Decker, attempts to escape. The boys and girls of the class stop him, though, and beat him with school supplies until he lies catatonic on the classroom floor.

To what depth Charlie Decker's fictional experience informed Kris is impossible to say. What is certain is that during fall 1986, Kris became increasingly preoccupied with violence. He enjoyed fantasy novels and playing Dungeons and Dragons. The only time he got in trouble at school was after he and some friends removed the foam filling from practice dummies on the football field so they could make armor for play sword fighting. His interests were innocuous, even typical for a 14-year-old, but the fantasies in Kris' mind were turning darker. He thought about hurting people.

Another certainty was that Kris was going to fail French II. Earlier in the semester, as his grades slipped, his mother met with LaVonne Simonfy, Kris' French teacher. His mother explained her family's complicated custody agreement, and showed Simonfy a copy of her ex-husband's contract.

For a time, Kris did some extra credit work and on one occasion stayed after school to make up assignments, but it didn't last. On Dec. 3, Simonfy asked Kris to stay after school a second time. He didn't.

The next day, the Fergus Golden Eagles hosted the Montana State A Girls Basketball Tournament. The school was more crowded than usual, with visiting students, parents and coaches. Periods were shortened and many classes were taught by substitute teachers, including seventh period French II (Simonfy was in charge of halftime performances in the gym). Henrietta Smith lived in the nearby town of Moore with her husband and their two young children. She was a regular substitute at Fergus High, and on that day planned on showing Simonfy's French class a slideshow from her travels in Europe.

Sometime after the period began, as Smith told the class about her visit to Piccadilly Circus, a knock came at the door. When Smith opened the door, Kris removed his hands from his pockets, leveled the gun to her face and pulled the trigger.

Kris would later say that everything went quiet then. He ran down the hall, forgetting about his hostage, Shannon Foucher. He turned the corner into the art hallway and saw John Moffatt, the assistant principal, who had just run up the stairs. They ran toward one another and just before they met, Kris fired a shot that hit Moffatt in the gut and spun him around and dropped him to his knees. Kris kept running toward the stairwell but, before entering it, he turned and faced Moffatt. He spread his legs and aimed the gun with both hands at Moffatt, who was unable to stand up. He pulled the trigger and ran.

click to enlarge After the shootings at Sandy Hook in 2012, Missoula County Public Schools started a Community Task Force on Safety and Security. Among the precautions adopted by the group is active resistance training for staff. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • After the shootings at Sandy Hook in 2012, Missoula County Public Schools started a Community Task Force on Safety and Security. Among the precautions adopted by the group is active resistance training for staff.

Kris left the school through the back door as students and staff ran toward the lobby. Some people were crying, some screaming, others asking what happened.

Kris ran home. He hid his stepdad's gun, which had two rounds remaining (Kris fired a fourth random shot on his way out of the school). Kris' mother arrived shortly before the police surrounded her home. After 20 minutes or so, she walked with Kris out the front door. Officers flanked the house. At the gate to the front yard, the assistant chief of the Lewistown Police Department told Kris to take his hands out of his pockets. Then he told the boy that he was under arrest.

Melanie Charlson remembers doing her first lockdown drill sometime after Columbine. "Everybody was feeling like school is a very safe place, and it statistically is, even with the number of shootings that have occurred," she says. But Columbine shook people. "People were afraid," she says.

MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle remembers similar steps were taken in Washington state, where he was the assistant superintendent in Tacoma. "Basically, we would drill down just like every school district in America was doing," he says. "Quite honestly, we didn't have the resources to do the things we were trying to do. I think things have changed since then."

They have and they haven't.

According to the CDC, the number of violent deaths at elementary and secondary schools between 1992 and 2010 remained fairly constant: there's never been more than 63 ('06-'07) or fewer than 33 ('09-'10). And another study, issued by the group Mayors Against Illegal guns, reports that between December 2012 and February 2014, 28 people were killed in school shootings, nominally the lowest number in decades. What has changed is the paradigm of responding to the crises.

Columbine spurred the first major alteration. Nearly all of the victims that day were killed as officers surrounded the school and waited for a SWAT team to be assembled and dispatched, which protocol dictated. Today, officers don't wait. Current procedure says that when an officer responds to an armed intruder call, that officer enters the building upon arrival and first and foremost attempts to stop the assailant.

The second catalyst for change came more than a decade later, in 2012, when a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza, with a history of social and behavioral disorders, returned to his former elementary school with a Bushmaster rifle and two semi-automatic pistols he had taken from his mother's gun collection. Just after 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 14, Lanza shot through the locked front doors of Sandy Hook Elementary in Fairfield County, Conn. A group of staff members were meeting in an office near the front door when they heard the shots. The school's principal told her colleagues to "stay put," and ran into the hall with the school psychologist while someone in the office called 911. The principal and the psychologist were the first people killed at Sandy Hook.

Four minutes later, an officer arrived at the school just in time to hear the final gunshot that Lanza inflicted on himself. Eight minutes after being dispatched, officers entered Sandy Hook, but the shooting was finished.

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